Why I Would Choose Laos as an Alternative to Northern Thailand

The view from Mt. Pou Si in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

I love Thailand – the culture, the food, the friendly people, the elephants, the scenery, the temples, and of course, the unbelievable beaches.  As it turns out, so does everyone else – Thailand was ranked the most visited country in the world in 2016, and even when it doesn’t top the charts at number one, it is consistently listed among the world’s most popular destinations.   Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, was also ranked as the most visited city in the world for 2016.

Luang Prabang is a charming town – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

What does this mean?  I found that parts of Thailand, for all of its charms, can be crowded (especially over high season).  While I’ve met many people (including my stepdad) who visited Thailand 10 – 20 years ago, and spoke of having a grand adventure, in person, I must confess that although I had a lovely time, I found that Thailand felt developed, modern and packaged compared to some of the neighboring countries.  All of these are reasons why many of our guests prefer to travel to Thailand on their first trip to Asia – it can be a more user-friendly experience for new travelers.  And while our guests who travel to Thailand very much enjoy their trips, the feedback we consistently receive from our guests is that Laos was the highlight of their tour, and was the one place they wished they could have spent more time.  Here are my list of reasons why I would choose to head to Laos rather than Northern Thailand on my next trip:

Looking across Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Availability: Thailand welcomed over 30 million visitors in 2016, and Laos, by contrast, welcomed 4.3 million in 2015, which with a modest increase in 2016 – roughly a sixth of Thailand’s tourism traffic.   If peak season, (I.e. – the weeks immediately surrounding the winter holidays) is the only time you can get away, finding rooms available in Thailand that fit your taste and budget can be a challenge, especially if you find yourself planning a last-minute trip.  Laos doesn’t receive the same press that Thailand does or the hordes of other travelers to match, so you may have better luck finding accommodations.  If you find yourself traveling during the shoulder season, you’re also likely to find low season promotional deals in Laos.  Hotels in Thailand are less likely to offer deals because they have no trouble filling their rooms.

Looking across Luang Prabang from the Luang Prabang View Resort – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Elephant Experiences – Many people flock to Northern Thailand in order to fulfill the bucket list goal of spending time with elephants, and the best centers can become booked months in advance.  Travelers can also have incredible elephant experiences in Laos – check out our blog about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, where you can witness and interact with elephants in their natural environment.

A resident mother and calf at the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The scenery: Thailand is famous for being picturesque but Laos is stunning – there is no getting around it.  Steep mountains covered in mist plunge into the mighty rivers carving their way through the jungle, and a wide variety of flower species and native butterflies call Laos home.   You’ll also find beautiful sunsets, small wooden villages, golden temples, verdant rice paddies and orange-robed monks.

Some of the many limestone pools at the Kuang Si Waterfalls – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Food: If your taste buds are craving an adventure, Laos may hold surprises in store for you including delicious local delicacies such as stuffed bamboo shoots or the famous Luang Prabang sausage.  As a legacy from their time as French colony, Laotians have retained a love of coffee shops and amazing French pasties, and I can never resist a good ‘pain au chocolat’.  Our favorite cooking class in Luang Prabang is the Tamarind Cooking School.  We always offer our guests a list of our favorite restaurants to provide a delicious and stress-free sampling of Laos’s culinary delights.

Sone enjoying a delicious desert at the Silk Road Cafe alongside the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Markets & Shopping: If you love to shop, you’ll love Luang Prabang.  The Night Market here is legendary and you can find excellent deals on incredible hand-made jewelry, fabrics, clothes, bowls, lamps, etc.  Laos is also renowned for the skill of the local master weavers. Be sure not to miss a trip to Ock Pop Tok, where you can learn how silk is made and watch the local artisans at work, creating their incredible pieces.  On my last trip, most of the gifts and souvenirs that I brought home for family, co-workers and friends came from Laos – this was where I found the most unique and meaningful gifts for the best prices.

Some of the beautiful handcrafted silk weavings made by the master artisans of Ock Pop Tok – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Festivals – If Loi Krathong has long graced your bucket list, you may be interested to learn that Laos has its own version – Awk Phansa, or the Festival of Lights. Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes.  The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions.  The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River.  There are other Festivals throughout the year as well – check out our Festivals page for more information.

Haw Pha Bang near the Royal Palace – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Spirituality – While you can find orange-robed monks and beautiful temples throughout Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is particularly famous for having numerous historic temples, decorated with beautiful glass mosaics.  At dawn you can witness the ritual of alms-giving or you can partake in our Evening Chanting and Meditation tour.

Monks collecting alms just after dawn – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The local people – I’ve found the locals in Laos to be very warm and friendly, and I really felt that personal connection that the guide books boast of.  Everyone I met greeted me with a smile and a ‘Sabadee’ (hello).  I don’t speak more than two words of Laotian and I found that ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ was enough to make many new friends, and I never felt stressed or worried.  One example of the warmth I experienced here, was the impromptu Mekong Sunset Cruise and BBQ dinner I enjoyed with Onkeo, Anan, James and Pet.

Some locals live on their boats on the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Introducing Knowmad Adventures

Knowmad Adventures team

Journeys Within is excited to announce that we are partnering with Knowmad Adventures – a boutique travel agency specializing in active, authentic and sustainable travel to South America and Antarctica, with destinations including Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Easter Island and the Galapagos.

Jordan Harvey, one of Knowmad’s co-founders, has been listed as a fellow Condé Nast Traveler Specialist and Travel + Leisure A-List Winner.  We recommend Knowmad to our guests because they embrace a similar philosophy to our own – the belief that ‘travel makes us better people’ and that having incredible guides transforms a trip into a life-changing experience.

Knowmad creates customized itineraries and can arrange tours that focus on family travel, adventure travel, honeymoons, treks, luxury travel, visiting the highlights or incorporate a mix of all of the above.  They take pride in providing connections to the local community with every unique experience, married with incredible accommodations.

We recently had the chance to ask Knowmad co-founder Tara Harvey a few questions about the company. Her answers are below…

Journeys Within: Tell us your story. When did you start Knowmad Adventures and what is your focus?

My husband Jordan and I started Knowmad Adventures 8 years ago. We hopped on a flight right after we got married and rented a cabin heated only by a wood-burning stove on a farm in Northern Patagonia, Chile. From there we explored the country, building trips that we envisioned family and friends would love. It was an incredible adventure!

A year later we landed back in Minneapolis, where we’re both from and are now based, and today we’ve grown to a team of 7 operating more than 500 authentic, custom trips annually to Chile, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Antarctica.

Call or email a Knowmad Trip Specialist to create your South America trip today: 1-877-616-8747 or travel@knowmadadventures.com.

Patagonia, Chile and Argentina

JW: When is the ideal time of year to visit and plan a trip to South America?

Patagonia & Chile or Argentina: If your journey to Chile or Argentina includes Patagonia, you’ll want to go during our winter and their summer (November through March).

Central Chile and Argentina (the vineyards, Buenos Aires & Santiago) have a climate similar to the Mediterranean and can be traveled to year round.

Easter Island, a Polynesian island off the coast of Chile, and Northern Chile and Argentina (the Atacama Desert, Salta, Iguazu Falls) are also great year-round destinations.

We recommend planning your trip to Chile or Argentina at least 6 to 8 months out for the most accommodation choices, and during the high, holiday season as much as one year in advance.

Peru

Machu Picchu & Peru: Travelers can visit Peru any time of year. Dry season starts in the second half of April and lasts until November. Daytime temps throughout the year are consistently moderate in the areas of Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, however nighttime temperatures are cooler during the dry season and can drop below freezing. June, July and August are the most visited months and the weather is pleasant, however it is more crowded. Our favorite time to visit is the ‘shoulder season’ coming just before and just following the rainy season (the second half of April, May, October, November) when the weather is fairly dry and visits aren’t at their peak.

We recommend planning your trip to Peru at least 4 to 8 months in advance. If looking to travel during the high season (May through August and the holidays) or hike the Inca Trail, we recommend 8 to 12 months in advance for the most choices and permit availability.

Galapagos Islands and Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands & Ecuador: As Ecuador is located on the Equator, there is little seasonal differentiation and it is a great year-round destination. Although there is a slightly wetter season and a slightly drier season, there is little predictability and these variations differ from region to region, as Ecuador is so geographically diverse. There is never a bad time to visit the Galapagos. Talk to a Knowmad Trip Specialist for details on the best time of year to snorkel or dive, to see the bird’s mating rituals or sea turtles nesting.

We recommend planning your trip to Ecuador & the Galapagos at least 4 to 8 months out for the most accommodation or cruise choices. If looking to travel during the holidays or if working with a strict travel window, we recommend 8 to 12 months.

Antarctica

Antarctica: October to March is the only permitted time to travel to Antarctica. With that being said, the best time to plan your Antarctica travels is dependent on the wildlife you want to see, as penguins, sea birds, whales, and seals have specific time periods in which they mate, birth or are in the region to feed.

Plan your trip to Antarctica at least 6 to 8 months out, and during the holiday season as much as one year in advance.

Please note that Knowmad has planned trips with as little as 1 week of notice as well, so if you’re looking at planning a last-minute trip, please reach out and your Trip Specialist can check availability in the region where you are looking at traveling.

JW: What itinerary would you recommend for a traveler’s first trip to South America?

Peru is a great country to start with for your first visit to South America, offering a variety of landscapes and cultures, and it’s under a 7-hour flight from Atlanta. Our Classic Machu Picchu trip idea has you getting off the beaten path in the Sacred Valley, visiting vibrant traditional villages and markets and returning to charming accommodations as you journey through ancient ruins, ending at the famed Machu Picchu. There are a multitude of options to customize the itinerary with culinary experiences, active excursions such as stand up paddle boarding, trekking, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, rafting and camping, or luxury hacienda stays, and more!

Classic Machu Picchu tour

Classic Machu Picchu Trip Idea Highlights:

  • Experience a variety of vibrant indigenous Andean cultures
  • Ride the rails in an historic train along the ancient Inca Trail
  • Explore the famed Lost City of Machu Picchu and the Sun Gate
  • Wander the legendary Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo
  • Meander the stone streets and bustling markets of Cusco
  • Get off the beaten path, discover the ancient ways of Amaru villagers, and bargain for colorful, hand-woven textiles in colorful Pisac market
  • Lunch in a centuries-old hacienda while relaxing in the Sacred Valley

Extension ideas include the Amazon, Lake Titicaca, or even combine your trip to Peru with the Galapagos Islands.

Click here for more details on the Classic Machu Picchu trip idea.

Knowmad typical travelers

JW: What type of travelers do you typically work with?

We work with independent-minded travelers looking for unique, custom, and private travel experiences in South America. Since we’re experts in the regions we operate (vs. specializing in one travel style worldwide) we’re able to maximize your time by planning a trip that is tailored specifically to your interests and dates. We offer:

  • Same or better pricing
  • Stress-free planning process
  • Pre-departure information and local on-the-ground support
  • Door-to-door trip planning services; Knowmad will navigate seasonality of a the destination, logistics in transportation, and coordinate your accommodations and excursions for a holistic, seamless South American itinerary

Don’t take our word for it though! See what our travelers and the press have to say about us:

“Harvey and his wife were living on a dairy farm in Patagonia when they founded Knowmad Adventures, and their friends – artists, chefs, architects, and photographers – became their network of insider contacts. The result? Many of the vineyards, haciendas and estates available to their clients aren’t typically open to the public.” – Travel + Leisure

“Quite simply the best trip we’ve ever taken. Destinations astounded, logistics and planning flawless, and your intimate knowledge and relationships made for a trip that was personal every inch of the way.” – Deanna and Rachel, Santa Barbara, CA

“Harvey focuses on customized travel to areas off the beaten path.” – Condé Nast Traveler

“The Knowmad team put together the trip of a life time for us. Everything was perfect, from the guides to the accommodations to the activities, and your extensive knowledge of the area and personal relationships with the people we met in Chile were invaluable. We can’t recommend Knowmad highly enough.” – Ben and Sarah, New York, NY

JW: What is your trip planning process like?

The process is easy. First is a quick call or email exchange that allows us to learn a bit about you and your group (custom trips can be for one or many people). If you have a general idea of where you want to visit that’s great, or if you don’t know when or where you’d like to travel we will discuss options.

We will learn about how physically active you want to be, how long you may travel, what activities interest you most, and some general info about your travel style and preferences. With this information we create a ‘skeleton’ or bare-bones trip flow or two that we send for you to look over, or we suggest a sample itinerary. After sharing with your travel partners we can collaborate on changes, or you may like the general outline of the trip.

From there we will create a detailed custom trip proposal with all suggested activities and lodging provided, as well as exact costing and inclusions. We can collaborate on any desired changes, or you may choose to confirm your trip. This process and detailed custom proposal is free and there is no obligation to confirm your trip.

We are the leader in custom travel to South America, and not only is this process easy, but it results in you having your perfect trip, one that is as dynamic and unique as you are.

Knowmad Adventures – 1-877-616-8747 or travel@knowmadadventures.com

JW: Are their any other favorite itineraries or excursions you want to share with us?

This is such a hard question to answer! It’s our job to be innovative with trips and we’re constantly seeking out new excursion options, foodie experiences, tucked away boutique hotels, and off the beaten path destinations.

Stand up paddle boarding paired with a Pachamanca feast on the shores of a high altitude lake in Peru has been a recent favorite excursion of mine. We’ve also come up with a variety of itineraries that explore the Galapagos Islands in a land-based way vs. on a cruise.

Combining Chile and Argentina by way of Patagonia like this luxury Chile and Argentina adventure trip does is a stunning way to experience the contracting cultures and landscapes of both sides of the Andes. Ice hiking on centuries old glacier, galloping up sand dunes in the Atacama Desert, wine tasting with the owner of a vineyard in Mendoza – you name it! They’re all favorites!

Let the Journey Begin – Call Knowmad at 1-877-616-8747

Planning a trip to South America might seem a little overwhelming at first and sometimes the easiest way to get started is to simply give us a call 1-877-616-8747. You’re likely to get company owners Tara or Jordan Harvey on the phone, and we’re happy to chat travel at absolutely no obligation to you. Or send us a quick email at travel@knowmadadventures.com and we’ll get back to you shortly.

From the Ground: New Luang Prabang Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin,

 Luang Prabang is known for its many beautiful and historic temples, and for the hundreds of monks collecting alms around dawn each morning.  For guests who want to enrich their experience by stepping into Laos’ spiritual world, rising before dawn is no longer the only option.  We now offer a new evening mediation tour!  This tour makes an excellent add-on and can easily combined with any itinerary.   We find that our guests love the chance to learn more about the life of the local monks and participating in this activity will add to feeling of serenity and peace that accompanies spending time in Laos. Participating in this Chanting and Mediation tour also gives travelers the opportunity to help give back to the local community through the temple donation included.

Here’s what the new Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour looks like:

This evening, at approximately 5:30pm you will join your guide at Wat Nong Temple for the monks’ evening chanting and meditation. You will have the opportunity to absorb the sounds of the monks chanting as you take in the splendor of the gold stenciling and woodwork of Wat Nong, located in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town. After chanting, the abbot of the temple will lead the monks in meditation. Your guide will help translate if needed for your introduction to their meditation practice. At the end of the session, you and your guide will give a donation offering to the temple before departing for dinner at a local Lao restaurant.

New Food Tours Along the Cambodian Coast

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

The Cambodian coast has been getting a lot of publicity lately, and we love all the options that are coming available.  This region is still rather undeveloped, so traveling here will likely not be your typical beach vacation (unless you go ultra-luxury for a stay at Song Saa Private Island).  One of our favorite hotels in this area, Knai Bang Chatt is offering some new tour options to spice up your time at the beach. 

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

CAMBODIAN COOKING EXPERIENCE

Often overlooked in favor of its neighbors more popular Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, Cambodian food has recently garnered praise from chefs around the world for its use of fresh spices and unique blend of contrasting flavors and textures.  Some of the favorite dishes include Fish Amok, Banana Blossom Salad, and Mango Salad. Your half-day cooking course starts with a visit to the famous Crab Market where the chefs will introduce and explain the various spices and local produce on offer. Here you will learn to identify local ingredients and understand the importance of seasonality in Khmer cooking. Once back at the resort, your private chef will assist you in preparing 3-4 traditional Cambodian dishes which you will enjoy together at the end of the class.

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

PRIVATE ROOFTOP DINNER

At 6:30pm this evening, you will be escorted to a private rooftop terrace overlooking the gardens to the sea where you will enjoy sunset with a glass of sparkling wine in your very own private location. Once the sun has set, your dining experience will begin as you are served a 4 course, wine paired meal by candle light.

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

SAILING CLUB FLOATING DINNER

You will be transferred to the Sailing Club Pier and escorted to your dining location at the end of the private jetty for your meal this evening. You will be greeted with a welcome cocktail and enjoy the sunset over the water as your 3 course meals is served in this stunning private location.

There are a plethora of other options in this area that we offer for our guests as well, including visits to the nearby national park, exploring the abandoned villas of the colonial period or a local cave, trying your hand at fishing in the local style, visiting the nearby villages and pepper farms or spending the day relaxing on an island with your own private BBQ.   

For other unique beach options along the Cambodia coast, check out our blogs about Koh Rong Sanloem and Lazy Beach – Both locations were recently featured in National Geographic as being among the best beaches in the world!

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

From the Ground: The New Siem Reap Boutique Shopping Tour

By Jay Austin

We always provide our guests with ‘Cheat Sheets’ that list our favorite shopping and restaurant suggestions.  However, we’re taking it to the next level!  Our new Siem Reap Shopping Tour is a great way for guests to experience the boutique side of Siem Reap.  This tour provides the perfect ‘girls’ day out’ which begins with cocktails before stepping out for some serious shopping, and is led by either Jay or Naida – Siem Reap’s shopping experts!

Here’s what the new Shopping Tour looks like:

Your driver will collect you from your hotel at 2pm to begin your boutique shopping experience.  This afternoon you will have the opportunity to visit some of Siem Reap’s finest boutique stores and experience creativity inspired from across the globe. You will begin your afternoon with a visit to the trendy Kandal Village, a street lined with boutique stores of all types and tastes from clothing to homewares. From here you will move on to visit the Eric Raisina Couture House where you will find some of Asia’s finest textiles.  Eric Raisina is a world renowned textile designer born in Madagascar whose career has included highlights such as producing textiles for Yves Saint- Laurent and Christian Lacroix. From here you will return to the center of Siem Reap city to visit the well populated Alley West, a small laneway in the center of town offering a diverse range of boutique stores from fashion, to ceramics, to swimwear. Your final stop on this boutique exploration is the Kings Road complex, a newly developed shopping area housing photography galleries, vintage stores and in the center of it all lies the Made in Cambodia Market offering a range of individually styled souvenirs to suit all tastes. The Kings Road complex is home to some of the restaurants on our cheat sheet if you would like to stay for dinner or you can have your driver take you back to the hotel with all of your purchases.